Victims of Victory: The Prosperity Gospel’s Trail of Tears

Victory is a biblical word and an especially exciting word for those in the prosperity “gospel” community.  In their defense, victory is a rich biblical theme.  We indeed have victory through and because of Jesus.  Scripture is quite clear about that.

“…but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.57).

“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (1 Jn 5.4).

But victory over what?  Some suggest Christ’s victory extends to debt, disease and impending death.  If, so the logic goes, we have victory through Jesus and our faith appropriates that victory then we can (and should) believe our way to victory over school loans, cancer, and dead-end jobs.  The greater the faith, the greater the victory.  In fact, God is quite obliged to give us victory over these things.  As arguably the world’s most popular prosperity preacher says,

“God has already done everything He’s going to do. The ball is now in your court. If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you’re going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family.” (Joel Osteen)

God has already done everything he’s going to do?  Could there be a more depressing statement?

Even further, we either appropriate God’s victory or we necessarily invite defeat:

“The more you talk about negative things in your life, the more you call them in.  Speak victory not defeat.” (Joel Osteen)

To assume then that you might not survive cancer or get of of debt or get the promotion is de facto faithless, Godless defeat.  Jesus died to make us indefatigable optimists.

Consider the apostolic witness:

“Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Pt 4.19; cf. Phil 1.29; 1 Pt 1.6-9).

The prosperity “gospel” has no concept of suffering according to the will of God, but only victory.  But Scripture repeatedly forces us to consider otherwise.  If anyone, Peter knew suffering according to God’s will because Jesus prepared him for it some thirty years prior (Jn 21.18-19).

The Paul who celebrated Christ’s victory in 1 Cor 15.54, 55, 57 is the same Paul who wrote, “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.9-10).

This is not to say pessimism is a godly virtue.  The Christian is not to be constantly sullen, downtrodden and hopeless.  But just because you may not be overly optimistic about a given situation does not necessarily mean you are not joyful, hopeful and glad in Christ’s work on your behalf.  Just because you may be content that God use disease rather than heal it does not mean you want to die.  Just because you are willing that God demonstrate his power in more ways than just healing does not mean you live a defeated life or are giving up on temporary remedies.

It simply means you understand “victory” to be of a different sort than earthly comfort. Nowhere has God guaranteed victory over pain and peril in this life.  In fact, he prepared Christ’s followers for a really tough slog (Jn 16.33).  He has, however, guaranteed worldly trouble will not ultimately strip you from Christ’s hand and send you to hell.

The apostles who gave us the language of victory also gave us the right application of the language.  “Victory” is not a word or concept to be universally applied to every situation we endure in this life.  It is the word/concept that gives us hope in the most important battle.

The victory of which Paul speaks in 1 Cor 15.57 is the resurrection of all Christians. As Christians were dying by the dozens Corinthian believers wondered what to make of Christ’s work.  What exactly had Jesus actually done because it didn’t seem to accomplish much.  Paul reminded them, gloriously so, that death was “swallowed up in victory”( v54).

Was Paul delusional?  Death was obviously dominating the church so what could he possibly mean?  Death is swallowed up not because Christians stopped dying but because they will be raised from the dead (vv42-49).  Jesus did not stop his followers from dying any more than he stopped himself.  He has stopped them from staying dead!  That is Christ’s victory.  Those for whom he died will not always suffer even if they must for now.

“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies” (Jn 11.25).

The victory of which John speaks in 1 Jn 5.4 is that of overcoming the world through faith. “World” for John is the realm of sin and hostility toward God.  To overcome the world through faith is to persevere in Christ’s love and obedience (v3).  “Victory” is to fend off sin and Satan so that we do not abandon Christ and his sufficiency.  As the world assaults us with temptation to leave Christ, we overcome through faith: believing the gospel that eternal life is found only in the Son (vv5-12).

Overcoming the world through faith is not believing our way to healing, debt relief or promotions.  It is resisting the temptations that ride like barnacles on disease, bills and un(der)employment.  Satan hijacks despair and pain not to strip us from health or wealth, but to strip us from faith and ultimately from Christ.  We are victorious in that we remain in Christ despite all the pain, disappointment and despair.  We still trust.  We still hope.  We still love (cf. 1 Pt 1.6-9).

We don’t need God’s help wanting to be healed.  He’s hardwired us to want life so he knows we want to live and will be joyful if we do.  We desperately need God’s help believing his “lovingkindness is better than life” (Ps 63.3).  Victory is wanting Christ more than we want life (Phil 2.21).  It’s when death is “gain” that we truly live.  I don’t need rescue from my cancer or my despair.  We all need rescue from a world where cancer or despair is even a reality.

We may or may not get healed or promoted.  Jesus may keep us from cures and corner offices but he will not keep us from himself (Jn 10.27-29; Rom 8.31-39).  That is victory.  So, we take our medicines and consolidate our loans and apply for better jobs.  But we do so knowing health, solvency and promotion are not the victory Jesus earned for us.  Jesus did not die for temporary fixes but for our eternal happiness.

Christ’s victory doesn’t mean he will cure us of cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s in this life.  It means he already cured us when he walked out of that Jerusalem grave 2,000 years ago. And so with feeble arms and failing bodies and frail faith we raise high the victory banner and joyfully announce Christ has won and he is Lord.

O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.
(E.M. Bartlett)

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